Matchbox kits were colourful. Very colourful. In fact, some people think they were too colourful! To understand why, let’s enlist the help of a small Finch…
The Armstrong Whitworth Siskin was a design rooted in the Great War, though it wasn’t until 1924 that the IIIA variant entered RAF service. The Siskin was a reliable and manoeuvrable single-seater fighter aircraft, armed with twin machine guns, and capable of a top speed of 156 mph. It was also the first all-metal construction aircraft used by the RAF.
348 Siskin IIIAs were built, and they served until 1932. The aircraft was a familiar sight at air shows during this period. Entire squadrons resplendent in their interwar silver paint scheme with gaudy squadron markings, would put on aerobatic displays for the paying public.
Nevertheless, the Siskin saw no combat and was otherwise fairly unremarkable, and so was perhaps an unlikely aircraft for Matchbox to model. In fact, Matchbox made a point of modelling neglected subjects.
Matchbox Aircraft Kits PK-25 Armstrong Whitworth Siskin Mk.IIIA
Year first produced: 1974
L184 x W120 x H35 (box), Plastic 65g, Scale 1:72, Parts 34, Features 3
As we have come to expect, the kit comes in a beautifully illustrated box, with a Roy Huxley painting of Siskins in flight above a rural landscape. The box carries a sentence setting the scene “Above their base at North Weald, Siskins of No. 29 Squadron break formation for their landing approach to the field. November 1928”.
Inside are the standard two sprues of parts, plus a clear plastic base and also a tiny windscreen (in my experience, often lost from second-hand kits). One sprue holds the fuselage, and the other, the wings. They are bright and colourful.
As usual, the propeller can be fitted so that it turns. There is also an example here of how Matchbox thought creatively about simplifying the assembly of their kits. A perennial problem with constructing biplane kits is how to ensure the correct alignment of the two wings. Here, Matchbox has lent a hand by providing assemblies that securely anchor the cabane struts (the struts between the fuselage and upper wing) into a section of the upper fuselage, thus making it easier to ensure that they are angled correctly to engage in the upper wing.
The instruction leaflet provides the usual multi-lingual and diagrammatic instructions, and there are decals and painting instructions for two aircraft:
- 29 Squadron RAF, 1928
- 32 Squadron RAF, 1931
Now, what does the kit offer in terms of painting options? Broadly speaking, Matchbox offered the assembler three choices: full paint, mini paint or no paint. Let’s look at each in turn.
As noted above, the kit includes decals and paint instructions for two aircraft. Both are RAF machines and inevitably sport the standard interwar ‘Silver Wings’ paint scheme, where the wings and fuselage were predominantly silver, and the main source of colour was provided by the standard RAF roundels and fin flashes, enlivened by individual squadron markings along the fuselage and across the top wing. The two schemes are shown clearly on the back of the box.
The colours are indicated by letters that key to a list of Humbrol paints in the instruction leaflet.
It’s hard not to see the decoration as a form of latter-day heraldry, and it’s a distinctive feature of these RAF interwar fighters. The emphasis is certainly on proudly and loudly proclaiming the identity of the aircraft rather than meeting any military concerns of disguise or operational utility. Most ‘serious’ modellers would probably consider that the full potential of their kit could not be realised without reproducing the historical decoration of the Siskin. They would expect to fully paint their kit, probably in accordance with one of these schemes, or alternatively by using an after-market decal sheet and painting guide from a specialist supplier.
However, Matchbox also wanted their models to be attractive to younger modellers, who might not have the requisite skills, resources or patience to satisfactorily paint their kits. Consequently, they offered the Siskin constructor an option for a ‘mini-paint scheme’. This leaves most of the kit unpainted, and focusses instead on painting only minor parts. On the Siskin for example, the scheme provides instructions for painting the cockpit interior and pilot, the undercarriage, and the engine and propeller.
The mini-paint scheme is an awkward idea, that Matchbox didn’t really follow through properly. To be sure, some time would be saved by not having to paint the whole aircraft, but on the other hand the mini-paint scheme requires the modeller to complete all of the most awkward and time-consuming tasks that would be involved: for example, painting the wheel hubs and details on the pilot figure. You would also need a fine brush and no fewer than seven different colours of paint (only two fewer than is needed for the full-colour schemes). And, of course, you still have to apply the decals.
Now, if the aircraft were moulded in silver-coloured plastic, this mini-paint scheme would make good sense, since the only non-silver areas not covered by the mini-paint scheme are the fuselage immediately behind the pilot, and the front of the 29 Squadron aircraft. Aside from these, the colour scheme could be considered near-complete, and visually you would have captured the silvery gaudiness of the original subject. Hold that thought for a moment…
The third option offered by Matchbox was simply not to paint the model at all. To Matchbox, this was an entirely valid choice. On the side of the box, the model is shown unpainted with the text “Finished model with parts and decals as supplied – no painting necessary”.
So, to back up this approach, did Matchbox produce their Siskin model in silver plastic? Not on your life! They chose instead to supply the kit in blue (for the fuselage) and yellow (for the wings), as shown on the side of the box.
Why, we may ask? They remind me of the colours chosen for the Boeing P-12E, a US aircraft of the same era, where gaudy colouration was taken to new heights. But they are obviously not appropriate for the Siskin.
That they moulded each sprue in a different colour is probably due to their commitment to making multi-colour kits – it was a distinguishing feature for the range, and trumpeted in all of the marketing. This approach worked slightly better for military aircraft bearing a camouflage scheme of several colours, but even here the distribution of colours across the two sprues seldom matched the locations of the colours of the real-life subject. For example, aircraft often had different colours on their upper and lower surfaces, whereas the kits typically incorporated the entire wing on one sprue, and the fuselage on the other.
As a result, not painting the kit inevitably results in a Siskin that looks nothing like the original subject. Even if you did decide to paint the kit, most contemporary reviews noted that the use of brightly coloured plastic made it more challenging to achieve the correct silver finish without the underlying colours showing through. All ways round, it was a mistake!
Before we leave the subject, I must add a postscript. The Siskin kit can, in fact, be found with a variety of colour schemes. Matchbox occasionally switched the colours, presumably depending on what colours were available when it was time to produce a new batch of kits. I don’t claim to have all of the possible variations, but in my possession are kits in the following combinations:
- Yellow wings, blue fuselage (same as picture on box)
- Beige wings, turquoise/blue fuselage
- Brown wings, green fuselage
- Grey/silver wings, green fuselage
- as above, but both darker shades
As the box art did not change, purchasers who rather liked the look of the blue and yellow model pictured on the side of the box might well have been confused when they opened the box to discover one of the latter combinations! However, as can be seen, at least we can say that the kit was produced, for a time, with silver wings. It’s a nod in the direction of using appropriate colours, especially if the 29 Squadron aircraft with its green forward fuselage, was modelled.
If you are a fan of ‘Silver Wings’ interwar biplanes, then Matchbox produced two other candidates for you: Pk-1 Hawker Fury and PK-8 Gloster Gladiator Mk.I. Don’t ask what colour plastic they were produced in…